New rules would curb black lung, but at what cost?

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The coal mining crowd of 250 shoehorned into a small ballroom at the Meadow Lands DoubleTree Hotel in Washington County Thursday morning was asked if they knew anyone who had black lung disease.

Fewer than 100, but still a good number, raised hands.

The guy who asked the question, Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, had posed the same query at two previous coalfield meetings, held in Beckley, W.Va., and Hazard, Ky., to explain the new, controversial federal mining rule aimed at reducing coal dust in the mines and ending black lung.

He counted similar numbers of affirmative votes at each.

“It shows that miners are still getting the disease and miners are still dying from it,” Mr. Main said. “And that is the inescapable truth.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration is holding the meetings with miners, mine owners, coalfield businesses and union officials to review how the final rule to lower miners’ exposure to coal dust will be phased in over a two-year period beginning Aug. 1.

The rule is intended to reduce and reverse a trend that shows black lung disease rates for miners have doubled since 1997, and many of those affected are younger miners in Pennsylvania and other Appalachian coalfield states.

Since 1968, more than 76,000 miners have died from black lung disease, also known as coal miner’s pneumoconiosis, with about 1,500 miners continuing to die each year. The highest number of those miner deaths, 48,000, have occurred in Pennsylvania, and in the state over the past 10 years $1.2 billion has been spent on medical costs and survivor benefits, Mr. Main said.

The new rule will require operators to conduct more frequent air sampling in the mines during the full shift miners work beginning Aug. 1; require miners to wear a “CPDM” -- a continuous personal dust monitoring device starting Feb. 1, 2016; and reduce the overall coal dust standard from 2.0 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air at both deep and surface mines. It also requires operators to immediately reduce dust levels when they exceed the new limit.

But because of the ongoing opposition by the mining industry to the rule, which has been characterized by the industry as costly and dependent on unproven technology, Mr. Main is also continuing to defend the rule that replaces a dust standard set in 1972.

“We think the CPDM will be a game changer for miners. The industry claims it is not feasible,” said Mr. Main. “But there is no question in my mind that we need to get this rule out to protect miners’ health.”

But Phil Southern, a mining equipment manufacturer and supplier from Shinnston, W.Va., who attended Thursday’s meeting, isn’t so sure.

He said the new rule will be good for him personally because his company just started work on new water sprinkling systems that will help mines meet the rule’s standard, but “it will obliterate the small coal operators who can’t afford all this regulation.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who did not attend Thursday’s meeting but has co-sponsored the Black Lung Health Improvement Act, mine whistleblower protections and increased penalties for operators that knowingly violate mine safety laws, endorsed the direction of the new rule.

There are about 130,000 coal miners in the U.S. today, down from the 760,000 who worked the mines in 1927.

United States - North America - Pennsylvania - Robert Casey

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